How could a band I know very little about make this feature? After all, I just confessed to lewd fantasies about Deborah Harry of Blondie, extolled the effect The Beatles, Stones, Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, and The Who had on the “soundtrack of my life,” and took pains to bring from obscurity the lesser known guitar greats Tommy Bolin and Rory Gallagher. So why The Clash? Why a band that was part of a rock genre I never really liked all that much?
There was something about the music Joe Strummer and Mick Jones put together that lacked the pretense that clogged the British punk movement. It’s really only three songs for me, but they were powerful songs. The first was “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” That came off of 1982’s Combat Rock. There was something about Joe Strummer’s “anti-singing” (a term Keith Richards used to describe his vocal style) and the raw thrashing of the guitar with no overdubs. It was the same music The Kinks were making almost twenty years earlier, but it had a “fuck you” edge to it. I hear it today, and I hear The Beastie Boys pre-“Sabotage.”
The second song, another one off Combat Rock, was “Rock the Casbah,” yet another fuck you, this time to Iran’s clerics. “Sharia, he don’t like! Rock the Casbah! Rock the Casbah!” I tell ya, it’s gettin’ so a religious zealot can’t oppress his people without some rock musician giving him static. Next thing you know, so loud guy in a blonde fright wig will be scaring Jerry Falwell shitless screaming “We’re not gonna take it!” But “Rock the Casbah” is probably The Clash’s poppiest tune. I was 16 when it came out, and it was one of those songs we’d all yell at the top of our lungs riding the bus to school. It wasn’t typical Clash, the dark, angry, anti-Thatcher punk of the late 1970’s and 1980’s. It’s what let Mick Jones form Big Audio Dynamite and Joe Strummer to become an elder statesman for rock.
What solidifies The Clash for me is its earliest hit, the hammering taunt to British culture and the Cold War, “London Calling.” I actually didn’t become aware of the song until the 1990’s, which is just as well. My tastes in music until then hadn’t broadened enough to appreciate this darkly humorous rage against the machine. As anti-establishment as it was, it nonetheless found itself into a James Bond movie (unfortunately, one that featured an invisible car), which shows you how ingrained it’s become into Britain and how the world views it.
The Clash were not The Sex Pistols or The Damned, sneering at people learning their instruments. Oh, they were very much the pissed-off socialist youth that hated Thatcher’s Britain and railed against the collapse of industry in the UK. The Clash just bothered to make sure you’d listen.